In 1963, five days after Singapore had merged with Malaya in what would become a fling of a union, the city went to the polls. In the South Islands constituency, which no longer exists, 5,048 voters, mostly fishermen and tribesmen, played their part in shaping the future of what would, two years later, be an independent nation. A nation that, in the years that followed, would devastate, and then forget, their rural existence. 

"That generation had about seven to eight children per family, so I'm guessing the population of those islands back then was nearer to 10,000," says photographer Zakaria Zainal.

Singapore's modern identity is that of a single, diamond-shaped island; yet, in reality, it is comprised of 63 islets (land reclamation is increasing their size and squeezing their number; seven were joined to form Jurong, for example), many of which, just a generation ago, were home to Melayu asli - indigenous Malays - who lived in kampungs; fished for their meals; and spoke in distinct dialects. Each island sustained a community overseen by a pengulu ("village chief"). Some had amenities such as schools, a mosque and a police station; others were far more basic.

Singapore is comprised of 63 islets, which a generation ago were home to indigenous Malays

From the 1960s, Singapore industrialised at a frenetic pace, and outlying territory in the land-poor nation was rezoned for the sake of efficiency. Three of the 20 or so coral-rich southern islands were devoted to a petrochemical plant (owned by Shell) and the world's first eco-friendly landfill (which saw two islands become one), others became military bases and leisure destinations, such as Sentosa, which receives 19 million visitors a year. 

By the mid-90s, all of the indigenous inhabitants of the southern islands had been evicted, compensated and rehoused in high-rise tower blocks on mainland Singapore.

As Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence this year, Zainal, 30, and fellow photographers Edwin Koo, 36, and Juliana Tan, 25, have traced more than 100 former southern island inhabitants, and recorded their stories for a multimedia documentary called Island Nation www.facebook.com/islandnationsg

"We were worried they'd say, 'It's been too long,'" says Zainal. "But they felt not enough had been said about their history. Even as we are documenting this, one lady we interviewed has passed away, so it's a race against time.

Some [islanders] felt they had lost their paradise. People broke down and cried, talking about their old wooden boat, their corals, their fish

"When the state offered compensation to acquire their land, some were OK with it because their children would no longer have to wake up at 5am to take a one-hour boat ride to school. Others felt they had lost their paradise. People broke down and cried, talking about their old wooden boat, their corals, their fish; they felt their parents' and their grandparents' way of life, for which no money was needed, had been lost. 

"These people had built their houses on the shore with their boats tucked underneath, because that was the ultimate freedom. Their new flats are like prison cages; the wounds haven't healed.

"Many still harbour hopes of returning to their islands, even if just for a day."

Anthropologist Vivienne Wee says the Singaporean authorities never considered letting the southern islanders remain on their land; only recently has an official nostalgia emerged for these communities, with the government last year announcing plans to preserve the heritage and nature of Pulau Ubin, a northern island still home to 100 villagers.

"What has been lost is a sense of history," says Wee. "There is a post-colonial perspective on our past, but Singapore is not only 50 years old. These islanders had a continuous genealogy on their territories going back to the 17th century; their families had lived there for hundreds of years. It's important we don't forget."

 

The islanders' stories

Teo Yen Eng and Teo Yen Teck, Pulau Seking

In 1950, Teo Yen Teck had just completed a bookkeeping course when he was given a task by his uncle, who ran a general goods shop in Singapore. 

"My uncle asked me if I could go to Pulau Sekijang Pelepah (now Lazarus Island) to help a friend, Thiam Seng, who ran its only provision shop, but was having trouble keeping his books, as he was illiterate."

So Ah Teck packed his bags and left mainland Singapore to live another life. For five years, he was a familiar face among the islanders. During his free time, he would make fishing trips into nearby Indonesian waters; with more than 30 men, he would dive with a huge net to trap fish. Ah Teck would take with him any camera he could get his hands on.

"Photos are a priceless record of history," he says.

Ah Teck documented not only the countless fishing expeditions he went on, but also children on the island and his brother's wedding. 

In 1955, Ah Teck left Sekijang Pelepah. But in the 70s, he returned to island life to set up a provisions store on Pulau Seking (now part of the landfill island Semakau), where he would live for the next 40 years.

"We were the only Chinese shop on the island," Teo Yen Eng, now 90, says in Hokkien, of his time working on Seking with his brother, Ah Teck.

The island was tiny: it took less than 30 minutes to walk across, and was home to 58 families.

While his brother lived on the island, Yen Eng would stay for a few weeks and then return to his family in Singapore.

His daughter Alice says, "Those days, [when he was on the island] we could not contact him - no phone, handphone, nothing."

But the brothers had everything they needed: boats in which to collect free drinking water from a station on Pulau Bukom; kerosene lamps at night; rainwater to wash the floor and their clothes.

"In a kampung, everyone is caring of each other," Yen Eng says. "That's most important."

"On the island, we were more free. We are not free here"

Eviction, he says, was inevitable. And on April 24, 1994, the brothers gave their rice, sugar and other provisions to friends from nearby Indonesian islands, and left. Clothes were all they took with them. Their livelihood - their boats - had to be burned; docking them off Singapore would have been too expensive.

The remaining four families, including the village chief, left the island the same day.

"None of us said anything," Yen Teck says, visibly distraught. He is still not used to living on mainland Singapore.

"On the island, we were more free," he adds. "We are not free here."

The brothers returned once, in 2004, visiting the Semakau landfill, which is open to the public.

"The houses are demolished," Yen Tek says. "Even the coconut trees are gone."

Mustari Dimu, Kusu Island

"It has been over 60 years since I first started work here," says Mustari Dimu.

The 91-year-old lights joss paper for the 100,000 Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian pilgrims who flock to the Da Bo Gong Temple during the ninth month of each lunar calendar. At least 80 per cent of the devotees are women, praying for good husbands, healthy babies and obedient children. If they all lit their own joss paper, he says, it would be chaos.

The pilgrims tip him for his work.

Born on Pulau Rengit, Mustari moved to Pulau Seringat, now part of Lazarus, when he was five years old. Rengit, a small, flat island, had been threatened by high tides.

Mustari has worked for three generations of temple caretakers, all from one family, including the incumbent, Seet Seng Huat, who took over the role from his father, the late Seet Hock Seng. The fathers of Mustari and Hock Seng were friends; the latter regularly visited the former's family on Seringat. While the fathers spoke, the mothers would play cheki - a card game similar to gin rummy.

"Back then, this temple was surrounded just by water and nothing else" 

Hock Seng's father asked Mustari's father to work at the temple. A young Mustari would often join his father on trips to Kusu. When his father passed away, he decided to step into his shoes.

"Back then, this temple was surrounded just by water and nothing else," he says.

These days, Mustari is joined on Kusu by his son, Sardon Mustari, 65, and grandson, Hazwari Abdul Wahid, 23. Every September, they wait for a call from Seet Seng Huat. Then Mustari packs his clothes, tea, sugar and biscuits and leaves Singapore proper for Kusu. He sleeps at the temple for that month.

"Frankly, I just sit there and do nothing," he says, with a laugh. "Most of the work is done by my son and grandson."

At night, he enjoys the sea breeze. His son and grandson either sleep or try to fish.

"Living on Singapore, you cannot experience this and would need something else in large supply," he says, rubbing his thumb and index finger together.

Mustari's family value this tradition, and they note that he returns from a month on Kusu healthier.

He smiles. "The air here is different."

Minah Bte Gap and Rani Bin Omar, Pulau Semakau

When the residents of the Southern Islands were resettled, newspaper reports suggested some had secretly remained on one of the islands.

Minah Bte Gap and her late husband, Rani Bin Omar, did just that - on Pulau Semakau, where they had lived for decades.

In 1977, the couple and their son, Daud Bin Rani, now 63, were officially resettled in a one-room rental flat at Telok Blangah, southwest of the central business district in Singapore. But the parents rarely slept there. Instead, they gave the flat to their son and took shelter in a run-down beach hut on Semakau that had been used by workers from the environment ministry. They fished and, on good days, they would sell their catch to Pulau Seking islanders. They would swim and prepare simple meals such as fish and rice on a kerosene stove.

Minah, now 90, says, "Our hearts are attached to the island. We can't do the same things on Singapore, no?"

"If we don't fight back, we die. If we fight back, we die, too. Better to fight."

Although the couple were alone, they were relatively safe. But Minah does remember four Indonesian men coming to the island on a boat with parangs (knives), demanding their boat engine. Minah remembers saying to her husband, "If we don't fight back, we die. If we fight back, we die, too. Better to fight."

She took one oar and her husband took another as they prepared to defend themselves. To her disbelief, she says, the interlopers decided to leave. 

Today, Minah lives alone in her Telok Blangah flat. Her husband passed away several years ago.

Daud remembers Singapore's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, visiting Semakau on a boat, with his supporters, ahead of the 1963 election.

"The islanders gladly carried him on their shoulders off the boat," he says, "because there was no jetty back then."

Like his father, most of the islanders had been hopeful Lee's People's Action Party would affect change. They'd been promised amenities such as a police post, community clinic and Malay school. Within a decade, they didn't even have an island.

Nenek Hitam, Pulau Sudong

Hitam Binte Gongjeng was born on December 14, 1940, on Pulau Sudong, where she grew up. It was an idyllic island but there was one problem: it had no hospital.

"One night my sister-in-law woke me up," she remembers, "My niece was about to give birth. Her name was Zaiton."

Seeing her niece was in pain, the women decided to send Zaiton to Alexandra Hospital, in mainland Singapore. During low tide, the women took their boat and headed towards Pasir Panjang, on the southwestern part of Singapore island. At the hospital, Zaiton was rushed into a ward, and successfully gave birth; Hitam tried to watch the operation through the window of the operating theatre.

"There was a tap on my back," Hitam says, "and a nurse asked, 'Who said you could look here?' We were kampung folk, islanders, we didn't know what was going on.

"Normally, when we gave birth, the island midwife would have made preparations and would be on standby. When the day came, she would observe if the baby could be delivered in a normal way.

"However, the women would always have their water with incantations [blessed water] ready; that made things easier. That way the delivery was safe - at least, that was the advice from the older folks."

Hitam says all the deliveries she witnessed on the island were safe - "nothing went wrong". She was resettled in the 70s, when Sudong became a military base.

Choo Huay Kim, St John's Island

The year was 1972. Eleven boys were squeezed into a Volkswagen Beetle, being driven by their teacher, Choo Huay Kim. The football team were on an adventure; the 11- and 12-year-olds rarely ventured onto mainland Singapore.

Their small island, Pulau Sakijang Bendera (now St John's Island), had no doctors and only two midwives. It was, however, home to St John's Island English School, one of two English-medium schools in the Southern Islands.

Choo, now 68, wanted his boys to be the best football team in Singapore.

Hussein "Eddy" Ibrahim recalls that training under Choo was tough. Every morning they would wake up before sunrise to run barefoot along the beach. Being poor islanders, they couldn't afford jerseys for their matches, so their parents sewed their numbers onto regular T-shirts. 

The team was facing its biggest match to date. "We were up against St Michael's School [now St Joseph's Institution Junior] - the Manchester United of schools back then - and it was not going to be easy. All of us were tiny islander boys," remembers striker Hashim Daswan, now 53.

But the St John's team were skilful, sometimes winning matches 22-0. They beat St Michael's School that day and became the 1972 football school champions of Singapore.

"It was a big thing for the islanders," says Choo.

At that year's Pesta Sukan sports festival, Choo's team were invited to play the curtain-raiser match with St Michael's School.

Choo continued teaching and coaching the football team at St John's Island English School until it was closed, in 1976.

He says: "It was a paradise. I would have stayed there forever."

The Southern Islands - then and now

 

St John’s Island - Sir Stamford Raffles’ anchorage in 1819. By the 1930s it had become a screening centre for Asian immigrants and pilgrims returning from Mecca, and a quarantine station for those with infectious diseases. Today, it’s popular for its holiday bungalows.

Lazarus Island - Formed by land reclamation that joined Pulau Sekijang Pelepah and  Pulau Seringat and created a crescent-shaped beach, this is a picturesque getaway for tourists.

Pulau Sudong (off-limits) - Sudong and Pawai became a range for live-fire  exercises and training in the  1970s.

Pulau Semakau - Once a small fishing village, today it’s the world’s first ecological landfill, clean and free of odours thanks to an efficient waste-processing system. Pulau Seking was joined.

Pulau Satumu (off-limits) - Raffles Lighthouse was built on One Tree Island, as the name translates, in 1855. Today, only lighthouse staff and visitors with permission are allowed to visit.

Pulau Kusu - Once two outcrops on a reef, which served as the burial site for immigrants and those who died in quarantine on nearby islands, this is now a 8.5-hectare holiday resort.

Pulau Bukom (off-limits) - Kerosene was stored here in the 19th century. In 1974, the Shell oil refinery located on the island was bombed by the Japanese Red Army terrorist group. Fishermen once lived on the island, away from the industry, but today, it’s exclusively the site of the refinery; only Shell employees can live here.

Pulau Blakang Mati - A fortress and military base in colonial times, it was used by the British in the second world war, and was later a killing field for the Japanese. Today, it’s the pleasure island known as  Sentosa.

Pulau Brani - Once home to Malay fishing villages, a navy fort and the Straits Trading Company’s tin smelting plant, it’s now a container terminal.

Pulau Senang (off-limits) -The site of a penal reform experiment in the  60s, which failed when a riot broke out and  four prison staff were killed. A cemetery suggests  it had once been home to islanders. Today, it’s a military training area for live-fire exercises.